Peatlands and climate change

Down to Earth No.75, November 2007

Indonesia's peatlands have been in the international spotlight in the run-up to the Bali climate change summit. An international symposium and workshop on tropical peatland has highlighted the threat to peatland from large-scale land use change, while a new Greenpeace report warns of devastating climate change impacts if peatlands continue to be converted to oil palm plantations.

Peatlands act as a natural carbon store, and large amounts of CO2

"Inappropriate or poorly managed development of tropical peatlands and fires on them impact on local and regional biodiversity, the natural resource functions of the remaining peat swamp forest, and the livelihoods and health of local people", said Dr Sue Page of the EU-funded CARBOPEAT Project, which organised the symposium, held in Yogyakarta in August 20071.

Indonesia has more than 20 million hectares of peatland2 - most of the 27.1 million hectares in the Southeast Asian region3. Tropical peatland in the ASEAN region is estimated to represent about 60% of the total tropical peatland carbon store4.

According to a report by Wetlands International, each year around 660 million tonnes of carbon is released from peatlands that are drying out and oxidising5. Peatland drainage and degradation are also linked to fires that cause the release of an additional 1400 Mt/y of CO2. Over 90% of these emissions originate from Indonesia. As a result, Indonesia has been placed as the world's third biggest emitter of carbon6 (see also DTE 74), although some oil palm companies and members of the government dispute the figures.

Greenpeace puts the greenhouse gas emissions from Indonesia's peatlands much higher at 1.8 billion tonnes per year, or 4% of the total global emissions. The group says that 10 million of Indonesia's 22.5 million hectares of peatland have already been cleared of forest and drained, resulting in substantial increases in greenhouse gas emissions7.

Focusing on one peatland area - Riau - Greenpeace warns that 4 million hectares of peatland in the province store14.6 billion tonnes of carbon and that if these peatlands were destroyed, the resulting emissions would be equivalent to one year's total global emissions. It found that oil palm concessions held by Duta Palma, one of Indonesia's ten largest oil palm refiners, overlapped with areas of deep peat ranging from 3.5m to more than 8 metres and that the entire concession area should be protected under Indonesian law. Instead, extensive drainage and forest clearance is going ahead.

Throughout the Yogyakarta peatland symposium, academics studying peatlands emphasised the relationship between water and peat, and the need to control the water table to prevent subsidence, if peat is to continue its carbon storage function.

A statement adopted by the meeting concluded that there is a need for Indonesia and other ASEAN governments to promote responsible peatland management and prevent greenhouse gas emissions as result of land use change and fire. It said investment was needed in conservation, rehabilitation and restoration of tropical peatland and the "improvement of existing peatland management practices by promoting wise use, including participatory management in partnerships with local communities."


Peat and oil palm

Each year peatland is destroyed for timber plantations (HTI) and large-scale oil palm plantations, among other uses. According to the Indonesian NGO Sawit Watch, more than 1 million hectares of oil palm plantations have been developed in peatlands, with the largest areas in Sumatra, Kalimantan and Sulawesi.

This conversion is likely to continue given the Indonesian government's plans to expand oil palm plantations. The expansion is primarily aimed at global markets for palm oil for food, cosmetic and other products as well as, more recently, for biodiesel. The government has allocated 6.1 million hectares for oil palm plantation development for the biodiesel market alone8 (see also DTE 74 for more on palm oil and biofuels).

Sawit Watch has compiled data showing that regional governments have proposed around 19.84 million hectares for oil palm expansion9 - including ambitious plans for Papua (see first article). It is not clear whether these plans include allocations for plantations to supply the biofuel industry.

The current extent of oil palm plantations in Indonesia is more than 6 million hectares. Adding another 20 million hectares will take a heavy toll on the country's peatlands, and release huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. As a host to the climate summit this year, Indonesia is in the spotlight. The government must not only deal with being labelled the world's 3rd biggest carbon emitter, but also with the threat of forest fires and drought during the dry season, and large-scale floods during the rainy season.

WALHI, Indonesia's biggest environmental organisation, has urged its government to issue a regulation prohibiting the conversion of peatland to oil palm plantations10.

Unless there is a dramatic policy reversal on plantation expansion and a commitment to protect fragile ecosystems and vulnerable communities, peatland destruction and the fires, drought and flooding associated with it, plus the impacts of global warming, will continue to have a disproportionate impact on Indonesia's poor. Their living space and livelihoods are constantly being squeezed by these processes, which are geared toward serving the interests of plantation companies and the international palm oil business.

Among those brands which are 'complicit' in oil palm expansion at the expense of Indonesia's peatlands are, according to Greenpeace, KitKat, Pringles, Philadelphia cream cheese, Cadbury's Flake and leading companies including Gillette, Burger King and McCain.

The Greenpeace report states that members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) (see DTE 72), an organisation which is meant to promote sustainable palm oil, "are dependent on suppliers that are actively engaged in deforestation and the conversion of peatlands". Unilever, a member of RSPO, uses around 1.2 million tonnes of palm oil every year, or about 3% of world production. Indonesian RSPO members include Sinar Mas, which is planning massive oil palm plantations in Papua (see first article).

1 For Peat's Sake, press release, University of Leicester, Sept 2007, accessed 5/Nov/07. The symposium was a forum to exchange knowledge, experience and information on peatland-related activities by academics, experts, NGOs and companies. Around 230 people attended, from 60 countries, including Indonesia, the UK, Netherlands, Japan and Malaysia. DTE was among the NGOs attending and gave a presentation on peatlands and oil palm. 
2 Salman Darajat, 'Konversi Lahan Gambut dan Perubahan Iklim', Republika, 12/Aug/06. 
3 Biofuelwatch Factsheet 1, 
4 For Peat's Sake, as above. 
6 Wetlands International. Fact Sheet. Tropical peatswamp destruction fuels climate 
7 Greenpeace, How the palm oil industry is cooking the climate, November 2007, downloadable in English See also for information on Greenpeace's direct action in a peatland area to stop drainage and deforestation. 
8 Bisnis Indonesia, 23 Apr 2007. 'Sugiharto: Lahan cadangan kelapa sawit 6,1 juta ha'. 
9 Colchester, M. 2006, Promised Land. Forest Peoples Programme and Sawit Watch. 
10 Antara News 29/Oct/07